Plantagenet genealogy: the search for Richard III’s living relatives
When human remains were discovered at the site of the potential burial place of King Richard III, the search team was faced with an important question: how can we confirm whether these remains once belonged to Richard?
Circumstantial evidence at the site – including the skeleton’s curvature of the spine and possible battle wounds – point strongly towards the possibility of the bones belonging to the medieval monarch. However, in order to make the strongest case, the researchers knew they needed DNA analysis to identify the individual.
There is only one problem: how do we know whether the DNA extracted from the skeleton would match that of Richard, who has been dead for more than 500 years?
The key is to find living descendents of Richard’s family in order to compare their DNA with that of the skeleton. A positive match between the two would –in theory - confirm the remains belonged to the King.
Historian Dr John Ashdown-Hill, of the Richard III Society, had previously uncovered a possible direct descendant of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. Canadian-born Michael Ibsen, 55, is believed to be the direct 17th great grand-nephew of the King, and is now helping the team in their research.
But in order to be absolutely sure of this link, the connection is now being independently verified through a genealogical study led by Professor Kevin Schürer, the University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise.
“You need to contextualise the DNA findings in order to see whether it matches with the people who you would expect to have the same DNA,” explains Professor Schürer, who served as Director of the UK Data Archive (UKDA) and holds extensive research expertise in the fields of historical demography, census records and local history.
As the DNA researchers will be looking at mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton – which is inherited down the female line – the genealogical team will be initially concentrating on the maternal Plantagenet line.
“As Richard III didn’t have known surviving children, you have to go up the family tree and down again to find the maternal line. You must look at his mother and then his sister – Anne of York, later Duchess of Exeter.
“We have one possible descendent through this line who is relatively well known - Michael Ibsen. What we clearly need to do is to verify this connection by looking at the historical records. At the same time we are exploring all possibilities for another living descendent on the female line.”
“If the DNA doesn’t match, there are two basic reasons – either the skeleton isn’t who we think it might be, or the person is not a direct descendent. Because of that, we are also trying to find another person along a similar line. We can then triangulate the three individuals, in case the other line has been broken at some stage.”
The team is also researching the male line in the hope of finding another way of identifying the skeleton.
The main problem with this approach is that DNA from the male line is harder to extract from the remains. Nucleic DNA contains information from both parents, but only one copy exists in each cell – unlike mitochondrial DNA which is abundant in each cell.
As a result, nucleic DNA is far less likely than mitochondrial DNA to survive in the human remains after 500 years – meaning that it will be harder to use descendents from the male line to verify the skeleton’s identity. However, the team is still keen to pursue this avenue.
“In some respects, finding a paternal line is easier in genealogical terms,” explains Professor Schürer. “Genealogies favour the male line, and there are more male direct line successors who are alive today who can be shown to be direct descendants.”
When following each line of descent, there are many different historical sources the researchers will turn to. Since 1837, all births, deaths and marriages have been registered in England and Wales. Prior to 1837, they are able to turn to the parish registers introduced by Thomas Cromwell in 1537.
Tracing back prior to this date becomes trickier, and the team will need to look to herald’s visitations – a record of high status families’ right to bear arms – as well as legal documents such as wills.
But despite the challenges of the task, the prospect of helping to identify the remains found at Grey Friars remains an exciting one for Professor Schürer.
“Richard III was no normal monarch,” says the academic. “He is the last English monarch to die in battle. Shakespeare’s play and Tudor propagandists in general portrayed him in an incredibly negative light, and there aren’t too many post-Norman English monarchs where we simply don’t know where they are buried.
“All of this research could lead to a reexamination of Richard III as a monarch. The search has captured the public imagination.”